A few weeks ago my son indicated that he wanted my help in hosting a t-shirt design committee for a group of young leaders who are a part of the teen board of my Mother's organization. Given my life in the last few months, I was excited about the opportunity to simply spend time with youth and young adults around something other than the many complex challenges of the day. I eagerly agreed. I was nearly stunned when he later indicated, if you are buying breakfast for us we can ask everyone to bring cereal, peanut butter and jelly - the top three needs of two of our favorite charities. I thought it was a great idea and simply kept it moving - as the t-shirt design was the committee objective. I was so wrong.
Fast forward to last Saturday, and each of the young people came bringing boxes and bags of items, with a smile on their face on a Saturday morning. They have experience volunteering with, and donating to these organizations, and really didn't think twice about the support. I watched a father carry in an over-sized box for his two teens, a mom volunteer to run to the grocery store for her son (after he gave her money from his wallet) and had an engaging conversation with my son about the merits of sugar cereal, strawberry jelly and his commitment to Cheerios. Over the next few hours, they extended the invitation to other teens to give, organized a legislative letter writing campaign and talked about the "next level" fundraiser for the Spring. The oldest students at the table were in their second year of high school, my son had just completed his first semester. The t-shirt design got accomplished, but there was so much more on the agenda.
Years ago I started the conversation about diversity in giving with this group of young people by sharing the book Giving Back by Valaida Fullwood. We talked about the excellence in photography by Charles W. Thomas Jr., the impact of Giving Circles, the importance of Reframing Philanthropy, the root word of philanthropy, the relevance of social service and greek letter organizations in our community, the role of faith in giving, stewardship and more. The conversation went flat. The kids eyes glazed over as we talked about the difference between for profit and non profit corporations. My ambitious curriculum had left me thinking that I missed the boat with the audience that meant the most to me. I remember strategy sessions with like minded moms, trying to address the learning curve that we identified. Fast forward a few years and I'm so very grateful for grace, mercy and patience.
After my overly aggressive efforts a few years ago, we started integrating lessons into all of our activities, practiced using the word philanthropist in our life context, and began owning the definition of "love of humankind" to explain that every gift counts. I have watched as this same group of children have led projects, created giving strategies, evaluated charitable giving priorities, involved parents, given freely of their own gifts and elevated the conversation to include toxic charity, the irony of mandatory volunteerism, and the legislative policies that perpetuate disparity. This is not your mother's philanthropy.
Although we strive to be proactive in teaching and modeling the critical behaviors that matter the most to us - this is a long race and journey, it is not a sprint. I get the distinct pleasure of parenting a child that teaches as much as he learns at our hands. When preparing care packages for college students a year ago, a member of the community asked one of our young people, "Did you say you are donating to the students?" I was tempted to intervene and explain the purpose of our group, the root of the project, the role of philanthropy in our work - but the student actually said it best. "Yes, we are donors." As that young man went back to his conversation, he didn't think twice about the question that had been posed. The truest understanding of giving happens when it is simply who you are, not what you do. By teaching, training, serving and giving together, we are preparing an exceptional generation of thoughtful, strategic and confident givers. We are raising the NEXT generation of philanthropists.
I asked if I could take a picture last Saturday, to capture the moment, and the young people obliged. They weren't interested in my documentation or any credit, they were already on to the next agenda item in their busy lives. I could have captured the items in my van that had already been donated, or waited to capture the items that will be collected during their letter writing campaign, but in some ways it is unnecessary. They are living their story while I'm trying to capture it. They have already taken hold of the values and practices that matter to them, and they are already shaping strategies for future giving. The live generosity. My greatest joy isn't in what they have done. I'm so very excited about the future of this country and the next generation of givers, because I get to see how they continually evolve. My excitement comes from who they already are. Philanthropists.